Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Anarchism, libertarianism and the problem of power

Charles Johnson’s essay on anarchism is an excellent example of how anarchist thought, and some libertarian thought, fails to grapple seriously with the problem of power.

They would, of course, claim, that only they take the problem of power truly seriously. By profoundly limiting (libertarian) or abolishing (anarchism) the state, they are offering the best solutions to the problem of power.

Regarding anarchism, it is clear that propertarian anarchism is much less delusory than anti-propertarian anarchism. The brute reality is that property cannot be abolished—the issue of control over specific resources never goes away. Failing to recognise this does not make the problem better, it makes it much worse, for then everything is “up for grabs”. Tool-using and pair-bonding—with their requisite sense of boundaries of “mine”, “ours” and “not mine”—is the very basis of the moral sense, as one can see in comparing homo sapiens to chimpanzees. So, a sense of ownership is not incidental, still less antipathetic, to the development of morality, it is an intimate part of its natural history.

So propertarian anarchism does at least acknowledge the sense (and, indeed, the morality) of property rights. But having faced the problem of control over resources at the petite level it then stops. It holds the problem of defining and policing control over resources can be handled just fine without the state.

Which raises the question of why the state developed in the first place. Anarchism is either committed to the position that the evolution of rulership in every society of any scale we know of was a horrible mistake (yet, strangely, one that humans “fell into” with relentless persistence) or represents a stage that we can surpass.

Why did we “fall into” the mistake? What did rulership—and later the state—provide? Exploitation certainly. Which means there are things to be gained from creating and maintaining rulership. If that is so (and it clearly is), then how does anarchism propose to stop people seeking those gains? This is the first problem of power that anarchism does not deal with: rulership provides benefits that drive people to seek it. Nor are there any signs that either people have lost the taste for its benefits, that we have developed effective means to stop them seeking it; as distinct from ameliorating their effects. Getting rid of your state just makes you vulnerable to other states.

But was exploitation all there was to rulership? Did rulership provide benefits to its participants? The short answer is yes. Effective rulership protected its subjects, coordinated infrastructure, promoted trade, reduced the transaction costs of human interaction with common rules. Humans could simply do more with effective rulership than without it. Elementary historical observation demonstrates this.

Now, it is true that one could take this too far. Civilisations that, for example, achieved unitary rulership tended to stagnate. Competitive jurisdictions provide a much more reliable engine of human progress because they put barriers on the exploitative elements of rulership and encourage the productive elements of rulership.

But rulership was not mere exploitation on one side and irrational submission on the other. Indeed, this makes it much more tangled matter to evolve a strong sense of the limits of rulership. Particularly as that, in itself, changes. The proper limits of state control in the UK in 1931 or 1951 were clearly quite different from that of 1941.

Now, it is all very well to say that wars are creatures of the state but, given the reality of the Nazi state in 1941, only other states could stop it. Besides, there is plenty of war in places without states, or where states are not effective. Pre-state homo sapiens were in fact far more murderous towards each other than post-state homo sapiens have been.

This is the paradox of politics: the state is needed to protect us from human predators but the state itself is the most dangerous of all human predators. This is a paradox that can never be solved, but only managed. All claims to “solve” the paradox are dangerous nonsense. Whether the Leninist claim to achieve the “correctly motivated and understanding” state or the anarchist claim that we just abolish the state.

For to do the latter just makes people vulnerable to state and non-state predators. If one doubts that, consider the case of Somalia, which has not had an effective state since the early 1990s. What do we observe? Yes, there is economic activity, which does indeed show how overblown state claims in that area can be. But we also observe intervention by neighbouring states, struggles within Somalia to establish control, violation of Somali territory by outside private actors, piracy: in other words, all manner of predatory actions. The evolution of rulership and the state was not some sort of deluded irrationality. Nor have the drivers of that evolution “gone away”. The realities of human nature are not a “stage” we have surpassed.

Libertarians face up to this, of course, which is why their position is fundamentally more sensible (if not necessarily as relentlessly consistent) as anarchocapitalists. In particular, the anarchocapitalist notions that there are some agreed set of natural rights that people will naturally operate on the basis of, and that people “just naturally” see others as members of the same moral community, are simply not true.

But libertarians are still prone to not confronting the realities of power: particularly in international affairs. There is a strong strain of libertarian thought in the US (epitomised by folk such as Will Wilkinson and the Independent Institute) that is pervasively hostile to US interventions overseas. Now, individual US actions can certainly be debated and it would be silly to claim that the US has never used its commanding position illegitimately for its own advantage. Though one can reasonably ask if any other state had been so commanding whether it would have been so comparatively restrained in doing so.

My point is a more empirical one. The international system has worked a great deal better since the US assumed the role of “managing hegemon” than it did in the period 1914-1945. Part of the reason for that is that taking on that responsibility has, in fact, restrained American irresponsibility (something of a feature of its foreign policy from 1918-1940). More generally, the only two prolonged periods of peace between the Great Powers has been when the British were able to function as “hegemonic balancer” from 1815 to 1914 and the US doing so since 1945. It is when the international system is at its most “anarchic” that the dangers are greatest.

It is easy to overlook, for example, how much of the economic progress over the last two centuries has rested on first the Royal Navy and then the US Navy ensuring that the oceans were protected highways of trade. The solution to the problems of power is not to abolish the state but to tame it.

The great sin of Leninism is to seek to abolish politics in the Aristotelian sense. Its enormously delusory and destructive claim that there is a “correct” metric of politics such that people with the “correct” understanding and the “correct” purposes can just be trusted to crank out the correct policies. The cult of leadership worship that is such an inveterate (if variable in intensity) feature of Leninism flows from this disastrous claim: indeed, is a natural manifestation of it.

But anarchism is no less delusory in its abolition of politics. Abolishing the state does not abolish the problem of power, it just creates a power vacuum into which predation will flow. We are left with the dilemmas of politics and of the paradox of politics they flow from. Seeking to manage it as best we can but never being able to free ourselves of its burden.

As we contemplate the historically unprecedented mass longevity, peacefulness and opportunities of our lives we can also perhaps grasp Aristotle’s point that politics is not merely a burden: that, on the contrary, it can be a noble calling. Yes, there are lots of knaves in politics: there always will be. The real trick is to make knavery work for us, not against us. Adam Smith pointed out that we do not rely on the good intentions of others to feed and clothe us. Politics is no different.

There is utility in considering the possibility of not having the state so we can see, in hopefully more clear-eyed fashion, what it is, and is not, good for. But the anarchist claim to abolish the paradox of politics is as much a delusion as are all such claims.

ADDENDA This post has been amended slightly to clarify the argument.

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